SPEAKER: We're very happy today to have Professor Michael Meyer with us. Professor Meyer is a teacher of English, a professor of English writing at University of Pittsburgh, but has spent an enormous amount of time in East Asia. He now is spending a lot of his time in Singapore. But prior to that, he lived for quite some time in Manchuria, which is what he's going to speak to us about today.
He first went to Northeast China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. I don't think anyone at Cornell would recommend to our students that they go off to China without having any preparation whatsoever, linguistically or otherwise. We would say that's not a good way to learn Chinese. And yet, Michael is sort of the exception that proves the rule. I think you said you knew about it about three weeks before you left that you would be in Manchuria.
MICHAEL MEYER: Sichuan, actually. I was in Sichuan.
SPEAKER: Oh, in Sichuan first. Yes, that's right. He went on to study Chinese formally after having learned some there in the trenches and has written two marvelous books about China, the first down at the bottom in small words, The Last Days of Old Beijing. It was very well received. That was 2008. His new book just released this year, In Manchuria-- A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, which he has proven himself to be a worthy writer about things, transformations going on in China. And he's going to, I think, talk about both books and about his experiences overall. So please if you would help me welcome him.
MICHAEL MEYER: Thanks, everyone, for coming. You can tell I'm a bit froggy, so I'm going to project, OK? So if I'm yelling past the microphone, I'll try to tone it down a little bit. It's great to be here. I've read Hu Shih for several years when I was living in China. I'm aware of his affiliations with Cornell. He was class of 1914. And it's exciting for me to come here and sort of walk around the campus this morning imagining what he saw when he came here and how different it must have looked to him from his homeland.
I'm going to talk about In Manchuria. I'm also going to talk about Beijing. But first, just to give a little prehistory, as it were, I really am an accidental China hand. I was a teacher. I was a Spanish major. I'd volunteered with the United Farm Workers.
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to go to Latin America and work with farmers. And the Peace Corps called and said, congratulations, you're going to Vladivostok. And I said, I have no interest in that whatsoever. And they said, OK, bye. And they called the next day and said, you're going to Turkmenistan. And I said, they still don't speak Spanish there, I believe. And they said, OK, bye. And this went on several countries in Africa and South Pacific Islands, and I kept saying, no no, no.
And they finally called and said, it's not Club Med, it's the Peace Corps. You don't get to choose like it's a resort. And I said, well apparently, I do because I keep saying no, and you keep saying, we're going to give you another choice. And finally they said, China, take it or leave it. And I said, you've got to be joking.
I don't speak any Chinese. I can't use chopsticks. This is 1995. I wasn't aware there was a program there. It had been canceled after [INAUDIBLE] and Tiananmen. And they said, yeah, this is your last offer, you're going or you're not, and you leave in three weeks. And I literally gave my cat away, broke the lease on my apartment, broke up with a girlfriend, gave my car to my sister, and was on a plane and sort of haven't looked back.
And I just, this summer, went back to my 20th anniversary of swearing in with the Peace Corps. And for all the things we hear in the news about US-China relations and Xi Jinping is doing this or isn't doing this, I will report some sunshine in that the Peace Corps program is quite strong in China. And it's in four provinces now. I was in Sichuan. It's in Guizhou, it's in Gansu, it's in Chongqing, sure.
And a new rule this year instituted for Peace Corps China is that they want people who speak Chinese now. It only took 20 years to get to this stage. But for all of you who are teaching or have undergraduate advising, or if you're undergrads thinking about this, you can now be fluent in Chinese. I met people who were Masters students who are going to have groundwork for two years in China and were happy to be there.
Now after my two years in Sichuan, I moved up to Beijing, and I was working as a journalist. And I'm going to just explain a little bit about what I was doing in Beijing. I think the rule for writing a book is when the book you want to read doesn't exist. And for several years living in Beijing as a journalist, I wanted to read a pretty exhaustive account to explain to me why was it that all the restaurants and places I loved to visit were being torn down at a rapid clip.
So I lived out here in [INAUDIBLE], and I would come into the old city. This is Old Beijing. This is now the 2nd Ring Road. This used to be the Ming era imperial wall, about 25 square miles, the same area as Manhattan Island, equivalent to. But I would come in, and things were just being turned into rubble left and right. And I'm sure many of you know this or you've experienced this yourself. There was a redevelopment program that started in 1991, and it called to raise the hutong, replace it with like structures, and keep the community intact. That was the plan in the early '90s.
And it started with the less dense areas on the edges and was moving inwards. So in the '90s, these far edges were torn down for various reasons, which I'm happy to go into in Q&A if you're interested. The residents were not resettled in those areas. They were largely moved out. But the destruction sort of crept inward-- picture like a garbage compactor coming in-- to the point when I lived here in the late '90s and early 2000s, all that was really left are these shaded areas.
And the city of Beijing said, well, we love our architectural heritage. What are you talking about? Look at this map. We protect about 25% of our Old Beijing architecture. And that's true, technically. But you know what these shaded areas are, right? This is Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound. This is the Forbidden City. This is Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven Park. So although a large swath was, quote unquote, "protected," it wasn't like sort of heritage you actually lived in. You had to use a ticket to get into it.
I really didn't like being a journalist when I was in China. I always felt like a vampire, like I was sort of landing and getting a quote from someone-- it was like putting my teeth in, sucking their blood-- and then flap, flap, flap, away back to the office and typing it up and never talking to that person again and seeing how a story developed for them, right? Instead, I wanted to shift into book writing and become more of a toothless vampire-- sort of land and suck on somebody for a while and then flip away, but then I could come back and [GNAWING] gum on them a little bit more. So in short, I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer again in Beijing. I wanted to have that lived experience.
And so I wanted to do a book about these changes in Old Beijing, and I wanted to live in a community. And so I chose-- this is Dashilar. This is the oldest neighborhood in Beijing, a 600-year history. Just to locate us here, this is Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's mausoleum is here, this crescent moon right here is the front gate-- Qianmen or Zhengyangmen here. And so we pass through that, and then you go into the hutong, into Dashilar, this neighborhood named Big Wicker Fence. And this comes from an era when this neighborhood was sort of the Chinatown of Beijing because the Manchu-- who I'll talk about in a second-- when they ruled China, they closed the Imperial City off to Han Chinese or anyone who wasn't Manchu.
SPEAKER: So is that like Fu Manchu?
MICHAEL MEYER: The word is the same, exactly. But the ethnicity, the Manchu people from the Northeast, who were emperors, told the Han Chinese if you weren't Bannermen, if you weren't working as soldiers for the government, you have to move out of this inner sanctum. And so most Han Chinese moved over the imperial moat into what is Dashilar. This is what it looks like today. When I moved in in 2005, this whole area, [INAUDIBLE], was being raised. So you can see here this is already all destroyed. But this area here, Dashilar, was still standing, so I felt like I sort of had to race against time to capture what was going on in the lanes.
This is one square mile. Vatican City is one square mile and has about 700 people living in it. This one square mile has 57,000 people living in it. So my challenge as a writer was to land, try to integrate myself into a community, and see what was happening here. And frankly, whether the destruction was good or bad also, how do the locals view that destruction, and what was coming to them next.
Right here, right on this hutong, this is my house. That's my bike. I found it online. It was hard to find a house because every time I would go and answer an online ad, often the house was already being torn down or slated for destruction. This is not a beautiful old courtyard. If you enter in here, you're not going to see a tea table and a persimmon tree. Instead, you come off the lane and you see this-- a long entryway back.
Starting in 1956, the communists decreed that housing was no longer a commodity, housing was a right. And so people, by and large, in urban centers had to forfeit their housing to the state. And instead, rents were charged by the state, and the rents were equivalent to about the price of a pack of cigarettes. So people were paying very low rent. They were crammed into these former mansions altogether.
The capital had moved back to Beijing. Beijing simply didn't have the housing stock to people the government, and so these existing conditions sort of developed. Also, you see the materials that the houses are made out of. My walls were made out of pig's blood, straw, and mud slapped together, and then wood beams on the top with these old terracotta tiles.
If you'd been Beijing, humid summers, brutally cold winters. People paying very low rent and not having a great deal of ownership or disposable income in their home, these houses became dilapidated rather quickly over time. People always say to me, don't the Chinese value their architecture the way Venetians do or people in Rome do? Different materials used in that construction. And also, of course, different ownership schemes.
You go straight back into where I live. There's three people living here, one person here, an elderly woman living here, three people here. This is a propane stove. This is a cold water tap. This is my room. I have two rooms actually, so everybody called me [INAUDIBLE]. I was "big landlord." No heat, no air conditioning, no toilet, of course. I did have broadband internet, which I thought was hysterical. As the Olympics came, the China Telecom said, anybody who wants internet in their house can have it. And I said, yeah, right. Yeah, I want to see this. And they actually came out wearing little cloth shoes and climbed down the roof and dropped a line down into my house.
To me, honestly, I grew up in a rural area in Minnesota, so it kind of felt like urban camping to me, the three years I was there. There was a complete lack of privacy, however. That was a hard adjustment. The toilet, obviously, was down the lane. You'd go in here. There's no dividers. The bath house was one thing, but the toilet was another thing. And there's no dividers when you're doing your business.
And as the Olympics approached, advertising began seeping into all the corners of Beijing, including you'd be in a taxi cab and they'd have the screens on the street-- on the seat, I mean. Well also in our toilet, when you came in and knelt down, you'd stare at this guy. That was great. He was advertising the anus and intestine disease hospital, telling you what symptoms you should be checking yourself for.
But as the Olympics got closer, this ad had to be taken down. This was an offensive ad, not because of this guy or any of this, but because the English was incorrect. It had to be proctology hospital. So those were the sort of changes that were going on in the run up to the games. I quite like this, actually. It's one thing I like about Chinese, how frank and direct it is. Don't say toupee, say "jiafa." Say "fake hair." That's what it is, right?
One thing that struck me rather quickly, too, is it was important for me in the book-- and I do this in the Manchuria book as well-- to argue on the side of the people that want to change things, be as pragmatic in my approach as I could. If you are an administrator appointed to Beijing from outside the city, if you didn't grow up there, if you've no idea what the hutong is, and you see this right outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, you, too, would probably think this is a slum.
And if your only way of getting promoted is to show direct investment, to show development, you, too, might think-- we could raise this, lease the property rights to a developer, they could build something commercial here, we could add to our revenue stream. So one of the arguments I have in the book is to try to convince people that this isn't a slum, actually.
And you can see, it's very narrow. It's hard for ambulances and fire engines to get back in here. It's patchwork cement. You see the old manhole here. The waterworks, the pipes, are actually from the Qin Dynasty. They're old terracotta pipes that are rotting through. Exposed wires overhead. Solar heater for the hot water. And it's not a slum, though.
I like this picture because it shows a lot here. The kids wear home-knit sweaters. They're playing with homemade toys. For snacks, they're eating things such as [INAUDIBLE], not Snickers bars, right? This girl is eating in every photo I have of her, which I love.
I was very transparent-- I always am in these projects-- about what I was doing there. I told people I was writing-- it's funny, if you say, you're a journalist, the shutters go down, like, ah, no. If you say you're a historian, the eyes light up, because China has 5,000 years of history. We have so much history. Do you want some? You know what I mean? It's like that sort of attitude, like, you're interested in this, you want to write about this, great. And so that's how I eventually got in. I taught these girls actually grade four, grade five, grade six.
This is a view from our classroom looking out toward the Western hills here. And again, I look at this and I see old houses. I see gray. I look at this, and I see Tiananmen Square back here, the Great Hall of the People. My students look at this and they see green. Beijingers often called the hutong "a sea of green." And the kids, to them, this is very much like a village. A lot of them come from villages who have moved into the city. And they can't tell me where Tiananmen Square is or what the Great Hall of the People is, but they can tell me what each of these trees are. So another twist for me as a writer in this context was to depict things from their point of view, not from my point of view.
As a nonfiction writer, you're always sort of relying on luck. Did you pick the right place? Will something happen? Will something unfold? In my first year, this landed on the edge and floated down, down, down, down. And that is Walmart. So again, those changes started happening rather quickly right after I moved in, just this encroaching commercialization, an American way of life.
But again, if I were a journalist, it'd be so easy to do this story, like, ah, American big box retailer comes in and conquers ancient Chinese neighborhood. It didn't work that way, in fact, when you watch how it was used and integrated into the community over time. A lot of the [INAUDIBLE], for example, the elderly women in the neighborhood, loved Walmart because it was heated, it was air-conditioned. If you were illiterate, you could still understand where things were on the shelves. Things were grouped accordingly by what their product use was. The trash recycler loved it because everything at Walmart comes in a package, comes in a box or a bottle. So their perspective on it, again, was quite different than mine.
A big component that you want in a book is you need to create suspense to keep especially a Western audience turning the page. Why should we care about Chinese people in a faraway place that we'll never see or visit? And so the suspense in Beijing is, would my house get torn down, and what would happen when it did?
Beijing's challenging to write about. I think China's challenging to write about because you often don't see the antagonist. It's not like New York with Robert Moses, where Jane Jacobs in Death and Life in Great American Cities can go out and say, Robert Moses has done this and he's destroyed that and he's built that, and I can interview him or get him in The New York Times and quote him. It doesn't work like that, right? It's a very shadow experience in Beijing. And so in the book, I talk about the Hand, this character that comes through at night, and daubs this on your house wall. No one ever sees who paints this. But once it's up, you're a goner. "Chai," it means they're going to destroy your home.
SPEAKER 2: Marked for demolition or whatever?
MICHAEL MEYER: Yeah. Once that's up, there's no going back. And this is what happens. In the book, I do follow people, go through the process of trying to get more money for their settlement. But it's rather quick once you sign the papers that your house is pulled down. And where this was became this, this road here.
But again, I wanted to go deeper. As a journalist, it's very easy to say, ah, big new road. But I was very curious. Who designed this? Where did she go to school? It turned out she went to school at UCLA. Well, that's no surprise. It actually looks a lot like a Los Angeles street, right? But again, talking to her, she wanted to do a tunnel underneath the neighborhood. Well, tunnels are expensive. It's much easier to draw a straight line. Do you know what I mean? So in these books, what I'm trying to do is get behind the rationale of people's decisions rather than to say, they've done it again.
I talked to a Chinese official once, a planning official, and I said, you don't have to make the same mistakes America has. And he was very offended and said, we have every right to make the same mistakes that America made. Fair enough, right?
Again, to engage your Western audience, I think it's important to have characters that people can follow. One of the set of characters in the book is this soldier Liu. They're migrants from [INAUDIBLE], and they have a noodle shop. That shop was torn down to make that road, actually. So we followed their story as they go through the book. Also, recycler Wong, a trash picker from Henan Province. As he rises, his income rises, as more and more people are buying disposable goods.
Also, little [INAUDIBLE], my best English student, and her dad, who's a security guard at Tiananmen Square. They're natives. He's lived here his entire life in this house. His attachment to the neighborhood is much more veterinary, you could say. He loves it because he has pigeons, and he does the ancient Beijing art of pigeon racing and pigeon capturing.
And then the star of the book is [INAUDIBLE], the widow, the woman who lives in my house, and has spent most of her life in this small room and raised her daughter there. And the first day I moved in-- I was the first foreigner, obviously, who's lived in this neighborhood, and I was the first foreigner I think she'd ever seen or talked to-- and she said, I have one rule. I said, OK. She said, public is public, private is private. I said, gotcha. Say it. I said, OK, public is public, private is private.
And the very first day at 5:00 in the morning, she barged-- my door was never locked-- she opened my door of my room, said, wake up, wake up, lazy bones! And she's shaking the window panes. And she's got a cigarette going, and the ash is about to fall.
And I'm in my boxer shorts going, what in the-- And she's got a big bowl of noodles steaming. She said, get up, get up, it's time to eat breakfast. And I looked at her and I said, I thought public was public and private is private? And she said, here, everything is public. Which that's very Beijing, right?
And then what was happening in our neighborhood was the transformation of the hutong houses to million dollar courtyard homes, but also this sort of "Disney-fication," the Epcot Center version of the hutong. This is [INAUDIBLE], the finished product here. And that was replacing-- this is the last slide I'll show of Beijing-- replacing the traditional hutong. [INAUDIBLE], this is the main drag in our street, our neighborhood. And an urban planner walked this with me and she said, everything you need, except for open heart surgery, is on this street. And that's truly the people's attachment to these neighborhoods.
When I moved here, I thought it was all about a 300-year-old courtyard home. Chinese history, Chinese culture. No, it's about being a migrant to a bigger city. Think of Queens in New York, for example, right? It's about finding a place, a foothold, with housing, with employment, a place you can put your kids in school, a place to become a Beijinger, in other words.
And it's funny, this book was banned for four years when it came out in China. But suddenly, it wasn't. And now it's in Chinese. It's used in places such as [INAUDIBLE]. I just did a talk there, where the planning students read it in Chinese, and they're reading it in conjunction with Stanford planning students reading in English. And suddenly, it's not. It's everywhere. And I thought, well, what changed?
And the media and stuff, when I talk in China, say, your book is not about historic preservation at all in our eyes. Your book is about affordable housing. Your book is about the need to save neighborhoods like this to allow [INAUDIBLE] and these migrants to come in and live in the cities. You're literally making an argument for the creation of more Beijingers, because people who move into these neighborhoods buy into the status quo. They pay taxes, their provincial accents round down to the Beijing-- [INAUDIBLE]-- their kids go to school, and so forth. So it's an interesting shift. Again, I set out to write one book. It's become something quite different over time.
Now I'm going to end with this slide in Beijing here before we move on to [INAUDIBLE], just to show these kids are grade 4. They have the [INAUDIBLE], their safety hat, on, the Young Pioneer kerchief, their [INAUDIBLE], their school uniform. These are my grade 6 students. Now they're not wearing the school uniform.
They're not from Beijing, right? They're [INAUDIBLE]. This is a huge divide in Beijing, as you know, the [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE], if you're an insider or you're a native or you're a migrant. Per national law, these kids cannot go to middle school in Beijing. So they have to go back to their village to take the [INAUDIBLE], the middle school exam, and probably live with an aunt or an uncle or grandma and grandpa back in the village.
And so after writing a book about urban China and the changes there, it got me thinking, well what's the next book I want to read about China? And it was a book about the countryside. I wondered, where do these girls go back to when they move? So I switched from this to this. I went 800 miles northeast through the Great Wall. It's about the same-- imagine getting on a train in DC and ending up in central Maine. Same direction, same distance. This is a village called Wasteland. I think it's aptly named. I'll talk about that in a little bit.
It was also a big shift, too, in that when you write about Beijing, there's no shortage of materials. There's archives, and then there's people diaries, and reports, journalism and stuff over the past 150 years at least for Beijing, and much earlier than that if you're looking at Chinese sources. But for an area like this, there's really nothing, at least that's what I thought when I started there.
And one of the first pieces that I found in an archive-- a Jesuit priest, a French Jesuit priest, traveled across this region in 1850. And when asked to comment, what do you make of it, what's it like up there, he wrote, "Although we cannot say for certain where God created paradise, we can be sure he chose some other place than this." It really is a very cold barren area if you're not familiar with this.
So here's Beijing. Here's the Great Wall. I went straight up here. This is the Songhua River, Jilin City. I went right here, so Mongolia, Siberia. I got closer to my Peace Corps mandate of Vladivostok here, ironically. North Korea. North Korea has a big influence in this region. Koreans were the ones who brought rice to this region. Where I was living, there were several North Korean refugees. When I would get involved with the police, it was always to ask if I was a missionary. They thought I was doing things with North Koreans and so forth. I'm not going to talk about Korea very much here, but I'm happy to answer questions about it.
My focus when I moved here was-- so I just did this book about one square mile of Beijing, I'll do one square mile of the countryside. Here's what it looks like in winter. Here's what this patch looks like at thaw in early April. The [INAUDIBLE], that really thick black soil that they're famous for in Dongbei. It's like coffee grounds. If you picture wet coffee grounds, that's how it smells and feels. And the water they use. This is when they do the rice planting in early May.
This village is quite unique, too, I think, in that it's hard to talk about Chinese farms because there's so many different kinds of Chinese farms. There's cotton farmers in [INAUDIBLE] and pineapple growers in Yunnan and rice growers, of course, in the South. In the South, they grow three crops of rice-- four month, four month, four month. In the Northeast, they grow one. But this one is so valuable and prosperous, that's all they need, in other words.
They make enough money off this one crop to last them throughout the year. It's the short grain organic sushi rice that are sticky rice. And this is one of the first villages, especially in this region, to go organic. They, 10 years ago, started planting organic instead. This is the rice when it comes into ear here. And then here we are in autumn.
Now again, to me, I come from Minnesota, so this looked a lot like home. I thought it looked nothing like a wasteland. The village over here is named Mud Town. The village over here is named The Dunes. The village over here is named Lonely Outpost. And the village over here is named John Smelly Ditch.
And again, there's no records, right? And I'm asking, what is with these names? And finally, someone explained to me it's like the Greenland/Iceland-- maybe that's an apocryphal story, the Greenland/Iceland flip-- but that when this land was settled by pioneers, by migrants, they gave it names to keep other people from coming there, especially war lords, or especially other settlers, because what they had was good. So they've retained these great names.
It was very difficult to find a house. Everything I read about in the news always says, oh, Chinese farms are empty. I really pictured cows with full udders and rakes in the field, and everybody just got on a bus and went to the big city. That's not true in this area. They have the highest literacy rate in rural China. They have the highest per capita income in rural China. And no one really leaves. Young people leave to go to school, but families remain in their homes.
And I couldn't find an open house to rent. I ended up sharing this house. There's an ethnic Manchu gentleman who has this half on here. Here's our grapevine, our onions, our corn. The outhouse is back here. And this is what it looks like on the inside. Here's the volunteer corn I had grown. You come inside, you step up, and my whole half of the house is a kang, that brick bed that's endemic to the Northeast.
You stuff dried rice and dried corn stalks from the outside here into a vent. You see mine was always leaking, and there's burn marks here. But it's so hot. Outside, it's minus 30 Fahrenheit, but inside, it's so hot, you're in shorts and a t-shirt during the wintertime. And because of the grain burning underneath you, after a while, you start to smell like baked bread, which is really nice.
Again, I had to do something. I find it very hard to go to a place in China and say, hi, I'm here to write your history. I had to be of use. And so I volunteered at the elementary school again. And this school was special to me because my mother-in-law went to this school when it opened in the early 1950s, and my wife went to this school in the late 1970s and early '80s.
At first, I thought I was going to write about family. I chose this village because my wife's family is from there. My wife went on to graduate Berkeley Law, and she's a corporate finance lawyer now. And she thought it would be fun to quit her job and move back to the countryside with me. She lasted a week.
She said, everybody in the village is treating me like a Chinese girl, and they have no concept of what I've achieved or gone on to do or what I want to do with my career and what I'm interested in. So she left after a week and left me behind. And it's really funny, the village changed their opinion of me rather quickly. They said, you're just like us. One of our spouses go to a big city to work, one of us stays behind and tends the farm. You're one of us. You're back with us.
And it was guys like Mr. Meng-- Mr. Meng lives by himself out at the Red Flag Logging Commune, which is a forested area not far from Wasteland-- and Mr. Meng and I became friends initially because I was so curious of his story. He not only claims to be the first Chinese to have been visited by extraterrestrials, but he's the first Chinese person to impregnate an extraterrestrial. So he saw a flash of light on the mountain here. And then that night in bed, he levitated off his kang and was taken to a spaceship and was surrounded by aliens and then brought back. And he said he slept with an alien.
And I said, did you tell your wife? And he said, oh, no, no, no. But he told the media. And so he started getting visitors out in the middle of nowhere here. A Japanese man brought him a big huge screen television set. If the aliens come back, they can see that we were prosperous. And a Malaysian guy brought him a cow. And he's like, what am I going to do with a cow? He ate the cow, unfortunately. I didn't want to tell anybody that.
But Mr. Meng's story went viral. And to me, this was like he's so emblematic of where I come from in Minnesota that to get out of that environment, you really have to self-invent. You're not Robert Zimmerman, you're Bob Dylan now. You're not going to stay at home and write, so you're going to go to Princeton and become F. Scott Fitzgerald and write about a larger world. You're going to invent your own story, write your own biography.
So Mr. Meng got so much prominence by this story that a local university dean finally said, why don't you come to the university and get a job here? And I said, you're not going to teach astronomy, are you? He said, no, no, no, I'm working. I'm just going to be a janitor there. But I get off the commute, right? But I get to take my kids with me, so my little boy and girl can go to the attached elementary school, the attached middle school. Their life will become better because of this.
So to me, he's like this great emblem of Manchurian sort of self-invention, that Pilgrim spirit. To my wife, he's just an example of the great Northeastern art of bullshitting. That's another thing where I come from, Minnesota, that people do with their fish tales and so forth.
It was funny, one of my last times I saw him, I said, could you draw the alien for me? He drew a series of concentric blobby circles that got wider in the middle, with little eyes. And I said, OK. And I remember that on the drive in to this village, the only billboard that you ever see is from Michelin tires. There you go. Coincidence? You be the judge.
So again, when I'm living there, I'm in this house. My wife leaves. I'm thinking, OK, I got Mr. Meng. What do I do? I'm teaching. And I thought this story might go one way, but it changed rather rapidly. This is the only road in Wasteland when I moved there. This is Red Flag Road. And the first summer I was there, this happened. It started to become widened, widened, widened. Doubled in width. No one could say why.
And then when the road was finished by fall-- this is [INAUDIBLE], she's a character in the book-- it had Wasteland's first lawn, it had street lights, it had advertisements. It had these newly buttered houses here to make it look nice from the outside. And the advertisements here are for a company called Eastern Fortune Rice, which is a homegrown rice company from this village.
And this development incensed [INAUDIBLE], this woman I'm picturing here, because she grew up in this village under Japanese occupation. She can still sing the Manchukuo Anthem. She can still count in Japanese and all that. She was a village [INAUDIBLE] in the '60s and '70s and '80s. She believes very firmly in communism and the, quote unquote, "Socialist Road." But this road was not built by the party or the government. This road was built by a private company. Eastern Fortune Rice widened it and developed it.
And they weren't stopping there. My very first winter there, this was the view out the back of my house. That quickly became-- this. And so what was happening in the village-- I got lucky, I think, as a researcher-- is that the village was undergoing this transformation from family-held farms to company-managed farms. So you were taking family-held plots, and the rice company was leasing them from families and stitching them together. And instead of doing hand harvesting and hand planting and so forth, they were using mechanized planting, mechanized harvesting. It was really becoming an agribusiness, a company town in every sense of the word.
And the idea behind this was that if you were a farmer, such as San Jiu-- who's 70 years old here-- the company said, look, you're an old person. You shouldn't be out there planting rice seedlings and weeding. We'll take care all that for you. Right now, you make about 12,000 yuan a year for your rice crop. We guarantee you 15,000.
We'll pay it to you now in cash, OK? You lease us your plot for three years, your farm for three years, we'll take care of it. There's one condition. We have to take your house, too. We're going to tear down your house and plant more rice there because that's good for the village, it's good for our bottom line, et cetera, et cetera. And you have to move into those new apartments.
And so the village was really facing this choice of like, on the one hand, yeah, it's great, we get guaranteed income, we don't have to work in the fields. But you're taking our home, and we have to move into these apartments. Every three years, we can renew the lease for the field-- excuse me-- but our houses are gone forever. What are you going to do about that?
Now when this began-- they started doing this in 2009-- Hu Jintao, then president of China, actually visited the village and liked the idea so much, he endorsed it. And so now in 2013, they've rolled it out as a national policy, or something they're urging, that family-held farms should now desist and start evolving into large corporate farms. As Americans, we know where this is going, right? In America, we don't even count farmers anymore in our official census. They're statistically insignificant. China very much would like the same thing to happen.
And so by the end of my second year there, this became the tallest structure in the village. This is [INAUDIBLE], This is Wasteland Village. And so now in the '70s, we said, learn agriculture from [INAUDIBLE], the big commune. Now in the Northeast at least, you hear Wasteland [INAUDIBLE] talked about a lot as this is the way forward. This is how we should be doing our farm policy.
OK, so you have that side of things. But what interested me as a writer was, the Northeast has always been a sort of laboratory for experimentation-- or failed experimentation-- for greater China. And I think you know this as students of China-- it's very difficult to translate or grasp all of China or all of Chinese history in a book, obviously, right? Or to explain to somebody what you're studying, because China has 5,000 years of history, of course.
I was very interested in the Northeast because, as far as written history goes, it's only about 400 years of history. It's not the 5,000. I know there's Neolithic sites and Paleolithic sites, which I talk about a bit. But you're really looking at-- for Americans anyway, it's more familiar. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and 1620. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet a little earlier than that. But we're talking about that 400-year-old window.
And I was very interested in this notion of like, OK, well, this farm experiment that's going to start being rolled out throughout China is not unlike these other experiments that have gone on in the Northeast that were then going to spread to the rest of the country, starting with Mr. Manchu himself here. This is Nurhaci, the founder of the Manchu tribe or people. They were Jurchen before, and then they became the Manchu. And his son was the founder of the Qin Dynasty that crossed the Great Wall and took over Beijing and then all of China.
This map is a bit sketchy, but I'm talking about this area up here. But when the Manchu came down and conquered Beijing, China, as we know it today, was greatly enlarged by this tribe. This is Xinjiang out here-- that was added during the Qin Dynasty-- Tibet, Hainan, Taiwan-- depending on your politics, but at least it was at the time-- and all the Northeast. And in fact, China's border used to go much, much further north into Siberia. So it really constructed the borders that we know of today.
And again, just like with Beijing, where I could see the neighborhood next to mine being torn down rapidly, and I felt like it was a race against time to capture things, I felt very much the same up in Dongbei, in this former Manchu area, because the last native speakers of the Manchu language, for example, were dying out. I think there's 7,000 languages in the world today, and about half are going to die out at the end of this century, they predict.
But none were once as prominent as Manchu. Native Manchu speakers now are down to about eight, a handful of women in this village not far from Wasteland called Sanjiazi, And when you go out here, I was surprised to see not only the women are dwindling-- I think there was 50 of them 10 years ago, and now they're down to eight-- but at the elementary school here, you see the Manchu script. And then you see "passing on Manchu culture begins with me."
And I'd never seen this anywhere, not even in so-called Manchu autonomous areas of the Northeast. And I was curious what was going on here. And this is the work of a local teacher, whose grandmother is a native Manchu speaker. And he's gotten in all sorts of political trouble for teaching the young children of the village Manchu at school. Because in China, if you're learning a foreign language at school, it better be English, not Manchu or another ethnic language, right? And so I went to this village and talked to these women and talked to him. And he said, being Manchu has become a political act in some ways in China today.
And that extends to old Manchu relics. The Qin tried to keep the Han Chinese from moving north. They wanted to keep their imperial grounds to themselves. There were several edicts that would sort of let people in and keep people out. One attempt, they had to keep people out with something called the Willow Palisade, which was an area about the same size as Maine, actually-- if you can picture the outline of the state of Maine-- in the Northeast, this series of willow trees linked together.
It was on a berm here. This was a riverbed. This is a river-- I'm sorry-- here. This is the former river bed. But the remains of this are all but gone. So we all know the symbol of the Great Wall. That's everywhere. The lesser Great Wall, the Manchu lesser Great Wall, has been reduced to this. These are Manchu farmers stomping on the marker here.
I used to work with UNESCO on recommending sites for listing, for heritage preservation in China, and training heritage management practices in China. And China loves UNESCO heritage sites. There's like 36 of them. I think it's 38 now. But the vast majority of them are Han Chinese cultural sites. They're not ethnic cultural sites. And so there has been no attempt, for example, to save the remains of the Willow Palisade.
And it really struck me up in the Northeast how the Manchu culture is all but gone, but instead, the colonial culture is very well preserved in the Northeast. This is partly because with devolution of how regions are funded starting in the late 1990s, the Northeast really had nothing else to sell to outsiders other than its colonial heritage to try to bring tourists in. So this is St. Sophia's Cathedral in Harbin, built by the Russians when they built the Trans-Siberian Railroad link through the area in the late 19th century.
When I first visited this in the 1990s, you couldn't see it from the street. It was all boarded up. There were buildings around it here. It was being used as a warehouse. You can still see the anti-imperialist slogan paint here, the yellow that had been daubed on it. But all of a sudden in the late 1990s, it was like, oh my gosh, we have something to sell to tourists. Let's start cleaning it up and preserving it and showing it instead.
And you'd even see this out in the middle of nowhere in the Northeast. I'd be on trains that would depart at 6:00 in the morning, and I'd be the only person on the entire car traveling out to these old train stations that are well preserved. This is a Russian station in [INAUDIBLE] that no one uses anymore. But it's a way that we could bring Russian tourists here and show them this. I often found, too, that the more desolate the surroundings, the more brightly colored the stations were, like they were urging people to get off the train.
You see it, too, to the draw Japanese tourists back into the region. I'll talk about Japan a bit. The Northeast has a much different relationship with Japan and the rest of China, or what we hear China has with Japan commonly in the press. Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
It took over management of the railroad system there, and it built this series of hotels throughout the region that now Japanese tourists love to go back and stay in. They've been restored to their past glory-- the brass railings, the wainscoting, and stuff like that. Those all exist now. And it's funny, some of these buildings, though, if they have any Manchu connection have really been left to rot.
This is in [INAUDIBLE] in the south of the Liaodong Peninsula. This road is being worked on. This is 1912. And here's the building in 2012. I like that the road is still being worked on over here. But again, they've changed the roof, but same structure here. No plaque marking this site.
What I really wanted to see here, though, was a denotation that this is where Pu Yi the last emperor of China, was hidden by the Japanese Imperial army as they decided what to do with him. They spirited him out of Tianjin on a ship loaded with explosives. If anybody was going to catch on to their plot, they would just blow up Puy Yi. They brought him to this hotel, they put him in a room here, and over a series of months in 1931, said, you will be the emperor of a new state called Manchukuo. And Pu Yi says under duress that he agreed to do that. So starting in 1932, Japan formally declares this new country, or this new state-- this new puppet state was what it really was-- up in the Northeast with Pu Yi as its nominal head.
Again, it's very odd, though, today, when you're in China, you can go see Pu Yi's Puppet Emperor Museum, and Pu Yi's a running dog, and Pu Yi blah, blah, blah. But yet, when you're walking around cities, such as this-- this is in Changchun, which is the former capital of Manchukuo-- you still see the old Japanese architecture preserved better than any Manchu architecture has ever been preserved in the Northeast. I asked a local official why they've preserved this old temple, and he shrugged and said, people like to roller skate there. So that was very pragmatic. Maybe it's true. I don't know.
The other thing you see a lot in the Northeast, though, in the museums is, never forget the collaborationists, the people that worked with the Japanese to enslave us. This is a propaganda poster you often see in the Northeast. These people, this is the Manchukuo state flag, the Japanese flag, and the Vichy Republic of China flag. And you can still visit sites, like the Unit 731 research laboratory outside of Harbin, where live prisoners were worked on to experiment with germ warfare. But you don't hear a lot about sort of the more humane side, if I'd use that word loosely, of the invasion and the occupation, which was this Millions to Manchuria campaign that Japan started in the mid-1930s.
Japan was so destitute and its farm areas were so broken that they dreamed up this scheme that would send third-born sons-- not first or second, because they had to be called up for the war or take care of mom and dad back home-- but if you were a third-born son or a second daughter, you could go over to Manchukuo and homestead. That was the idea, anyway. In theory, we would take the village name from Japan and put that same village name on a land in Manchukuo and go over there.
And in fact, 500,000 people did this. They didn't know when they got there that what a Japanese general had secretly called them was human pillboxes, that they were put out in remote areas that the Japanese army figured was where the Soviet army, when they broke their pact with Japan, would invade, and they would be a last line of defense.
And so you see this in the Northeast. This is in [INAUDIBLE]. This is on the Songhua River about an hour upstream-- or downstream, sorry-- from Harbin. This is an area where on these docks, after all the men had been called up to go to war, after the Soviets poured over the border in 1945, Japanese women and children and the elderly were left in these villages behind, these former homestead villages. And another Japanese general had cabled that their only alternative is suicide. They wouldn't be rescued, even though they were told they would be rescued.
And so on these docks in [INAUDIBLE]-- estimates vary-- I've heard anywhere from 800 to 3,000 women and children waited on these docks hoping that a ship would come to pick them up, or a series of ships. Of course, it never did. The women put their children on the dock, and they stepped into the river.
Now another harrowing story of civilian casualties of war, I know. But what's interesting to me about this is this is a local historian, a Chinese man, who's trying to get this marked as a historical site, who's trying to have a plaque erected to show that Japanese civilians were victims of Japanese imperialism, too. And [INAUDIBLE] an interesting place. There's several villages like this in the Northeast, where the children that were left behind were raised by Chinese families, raised to be Chinese-speaking. The women that were left behind, who survived, married into Chinese families, whether forcibly or by choice.
They were repatriated in a wave starting in the late '50s, '60s, all the way into the '70s back to Japan. And as a consequence, these villages have strong ties with Japan. You don't see English language learning centers. You see Japanese language learning centers. You don't see English on street signs or Korean. You see Japanese on street signs in these villages.
And in fact, [INAUDIBLE], even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, dedicated a cemetery in this area for unearthed bones of Japanese farmers, of Japanese women, who they'd found later on, and said, this proves that the Japanese were, in fact, the civilians were victims of this war as well. And they've sort of existed peacefully up here in this corner of the Northeast, staying out of Sino-Japanese politics.
Until two years ago in this cemetery. You can see this is a new memorial for the Japanese pioneer farmers. The county put up a new gravestone with some names of bodies that had been unearthed. And within a few days, nationalists from the south came up on trains, spray painted it, smashed it. This was bulldozed the next day, after making national news. The cemetery has since been locked. No one's allowed to go in it.
And so the Northeast always has this sort of-- people always ask me, like, do you think it's odd that we're not as angry as is depicted in the media of China versus Japan, but our relationship, our experience with the war, was so different. And in part, that's because Chinese had to work in Manchukuo. Japan wanted Chinese to work in the mines, sometimes worked to death, but also to staff the colony.
Just a few more slides. Another thing that I find so interesting up here is all this forgotten history. I think I know my World War II history pretty well. I know what the Bataan Death March is. I did not know that those survivors were shipped all the way up here, as was the general who surrendered Singapore, as was the American general who surrendered Corregidor and the Philippines were shipped up here. I didn't know that this was the first OSS mission during wartime China. I interviewed a man right before he passed away who, as a young sergeant with only a pistol, parachuted into this area, into an area of 80,000 Japanese troops, to liberate the American POWs at this camp all by himself.
Just a few more slides. Another thing, too, I find-- and you know this if you've been to China-- is if you're interested in history, you're kind of hopeless when it comes to the plaques, right? This is the Yalu River. This is the Yalu River Bridge. That's North Korea. I love the Ferris wheel. Why not, right?
But you can see it's half-bombed, and this is because MacArthur in the Korean War in 1950 was ordered that you could not cross into Chinese airspace. You had to stay on that side of the river. And so American bombers over a series of days, these very daring air battles with Chinese [INAUDIBLE] and Chinese fighters coming at them to only bomb half the bridge.
So the plaque here just says that from November 3 to November 4, 1950, Americans bombed the bridge. That's all it says. But the story behind it is much more harrowing, including the fact that a gentleman in my village, one of my neighbors, was a 16-year-old soldier just waiting on this side of the river knowing that the river was about to freeze anyway. So the Americans brought down the bridge. And four days later, the river froze, and 160,000 Chinese troops marched over it and joined the war and extended it there. This is an aerial shot, when the bridge finally came down. But again, four days later, people just walked across.
Just a couple of more slides. Another thing I find, I think people often have a concept of the Northeast as being the Rust Belt area of great manufacturing. That's sort of gone bust since then. That's certainly an element in the bigger cities. It's not in the rural areas, obviously. But these are laid off factory workers here praying to Saint Mao, to Mao Zedong here, the statue in there. They're laying flowers before his statue, and they're asking Mao to give them jobs again.
The communists have always enjoyed a great deal of support in this region. It was the first region that was liberated in 1948. And it's still a strong base. I think they have a lot of support here. And it's stuff like this. People don't really criticize the party the way I see in Sichuan, or in Beijing, either. There's a lot of fond memories of communism and what happened here.
Now, three more slides. Back in the village, it's very different. You do see the old propaganda, "long live the Communist Party of China," but it's fading on these old red brick buildings. You do see agriculture studies [INAUDIBLE], again, fading on buildings that are choked with ivy.
But really in our village, what you see is this. This is Eastern Fortune Rice. [INAUDIBLE]. They put up a gateway over their beautiful new road here. They built an enormous hot spring resort. The water that feeds these great rice fields is now also bathing the masses from [INAUDIBLE] and Jilin, who come out here in there Audis. They have a big organic farm set up, a demonstration farm, with the theory that city kids can come and pick watermelons for the first time. And you watch the kids, and they come and they kick the watermelons like their soccer balls. But maybe it's not a bad thing, right? The farmers are certainly very happy. They feel more connected to the economy and the greater good, as it were.
But the transformation has been rather swift there. And right as I was finishing my research, one of the founders of the rice company said, come on out, let's talk, let's sit down and have an interview about what we're doing here. And he talked about how he wants to build an airport, and he wants to build a rose-growing operation, and he wants to host a marathon, and he really wants a Starbucks. And he was going on and on and on. It was like, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And he said, oh, I forgot to tell you, I have good news. I said, what? He said, Wasteland, the name. I said, yeah, I love that name. I found out it goes back to 1770. It's older than America. It's such a cool name. He said, no, no, no, we hate the name. We're going to change the village name. I said, to what? He said, to Eastern Fortune, after our company. So it's literally become a company town. We're to that end.
This is the last slide I'll show you. My housemate, Mr. [INAUDIBLE], ethnic Manchu-- they had been there for generations, they harvested their rice by hand-- this was their last harvest they did as a family. They decided to sign the document to move out of their house. I find that very ironic that I wrote a book about old Beijing, about a neighborhood I thought was going to be destroyed. That's still standing.
The farmhouse that I lived in the Northeast, though, is gone and is now a rice paddy. And this is the final shot. Like I said, I'll end here. This was the final family harvest, where they all went together in the fields and then dried it traditionally out on the road leading to the sunset here. So I'll end there and I'm happy to take any questions.
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Michael Meyer, Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, opens up about his experiences as a journalist and writer, witnessing the transformation of China at the level of both an urban neighborhood in Beijing’s old hutongs and a remote village in the Manchurian countryside. Recorded Oct. 25, 2015 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series.